Lorraine Cox, Creative Estuary Director, tells us about the new Knowledge Exchange Partnership (KEP), the first 3 events and what’s coming up for this new initiative.

What is the Knowledge Exchange Partnership all about? What work underpins this new initiative?

The Knowledge Exchange Partnership brings together Senior local government staff from the 6 Levelling Up for Culture priority areas in the Estuary, which are: Medway, Swale, Gravesham and including Ebbsfleet Development Corporation in Kent; and, Thurrock, Castle Point, and Basildon in Essex. These authorities are working to find the right pathways to ensure sustained and locally relevant growth of the Creative & Cultural Industries (CCIs) in their areas. They are interested in the role of the CCIs sector in social and economic regeneration, so we thought we should bring them together.

Our first KEP event series started with a site tour of Barking in September, continued in October at High House Production Park in Purfleet, and finishing off with another event at the Woodville Theatre in Gravesend.

We curated these events to bring senior decision-makers together from across departments and pan-Estuary. The purpose was to learn from each other, providing opportunities to pick up case studies and evidence first-hand. This high-quality knowledge exchange programme has deepened local authorities’ understanding of the CCIs sector and fostered greater ambition in our work together across the Estuary.

What topics were discussed at the KEP events?

Event 1: Innovative creative workspaces in Barking Town Centre, Barking Town. 13th September 2023.

The first event took us to Barking where we met our fabulous host David Harley of BeFirst Regeneration Ltd, who gave us a tour of the town centre and three workspace venues.  He gave us the wider context and the complexity of local delivery.

We visited Barking 360, this community business work hub provides space for freelancers, start-ups, and SMEs; a story of how to set-up a flexible space economically outside of a Council structure, and to support local people often in the early stages of business ideas.

At House for Artists this ambitious model, carved out of a wider housing deal by the Council, provides affordable sustainable housing for artists near the high street including a requirement to provide activities for the public and fellow residents in the shared space on the ground floor.

At Make It Roycroft House and met Hannah Briley and her team. This initiative opened about 12 months ago and is still finding its market position and community links. The building has a variety of work rooms, desk-work spaces, and shared hang-out spaces. Hannah and her team shared their journey to opening the building, warts and all. A key lesson learnt was – don’t assume anything about a building’s condition and read everything on the lease and, any other related documents. The second big lesson was – be resilient. In starting up a workspace business you must build up your tenants by enabling them to grow connections between each other and with their supply chains. It takes time to search out and attract a diverse set of tenants who bring differing needs and ambitions for the space. The role of the local Council is key to enabling creative and entrepreneurial growth in the area by easing the way ie we heard how supportive various departments were, especially where jobs and activities were to be delivered.

What were the other 2 topics?

Event 2: Repurposing Local Authority Assets at High House Production Park, Purfleet on Wednesday 4th October.

The second event was at High House Production Park.

Paul Augarde led us in a discussion of local authority owned assets and the importance of mapping assets and preparing strategies to unlock the potential of these spaces, often in town centres and near transport hubs.

Sara Turnbull took us through an in-depth technical presentation about Asset Transfer: The rules and their guardians; she demystified the options for moving assets forward into creative use.

Claire Tymon shared her experiences of – Activating council and private assets with creativity, in the Northwest, Glossop and Blackburn.

Paul, Sara, and Claire took us through the start to finish process of gaining an understanding of the potential of assets, taking control of the assets, finding the right use for the spaces, and navigating to develop the right partnerships and operational models to make the vision come to life.

Harry Owen-Jones – Unlock creativity & community with meanwhile use – talked us through the commercial arguments and evidence-based approach to establishing mixed economy models. His examples explained in detail how to gather together tenants that support each other through a range of rental and shared expertise. He has created communities of tenants and delivered returns for local authorities.

Duncan Baker-Brown – Retrofit, heritage assets and zero-carbon – ‘The Re-Use Atlas: a Designer’s Guide Towards a Circular Economy’, Duncan described his groundbreaking approach to sustainable design and development, and closed-looped systems; describing projects that met and pushed the boundaries of what is possible including having met the BREEAM standard.

Our group discussed focused around retrofit and finding the right delivery funding and partners.

Event 3: Repurposing Car Parks and Shopping Centres at The Woodville Theatre, Gravesend on Tuesday 31st October.

The final session at The Woodville Theatre, Gravesend brought us together to understand the detailed challenges and opportunities of delivering workspace for the creative sector. Carl Turner told us about the vision to turn a car park into Peckham Levels. The first tenant on the roof set down a marker for using this important local building. Carl and his team developed a plan to repurpose the building and shared the ups and downs of achieving the success you’ll see there now in a thriving ecology of creative organisations, audiences, F&B businesses, and entrepreneurs.

We toured Gravesend town to hear about the Council’s plans to embed creative businesses in the area and enjoyed meeting artists and creatives in the St George’s Shopping Centre, now diversified into a lively arts centre with workspaces.

James Ryman, Investment Director at Capital & Regional explained the commercial and development drivers behind the conversion of The Mall at Walthamstow East London. The project has provided crates space on the top floor bringing together F&B and community activities. In contrast, Rebekah Polding told us about vacancies in the Palace Shopping Centre in Enfield town and the Council’s concerns about lack of activity. She persuaded the owners to let her set-up a Culture Palace in an empty unit. This became a magnet for community and cultural activity, everything from community meetings, workshops, choirs, writers groups, library services, museum and art exhibitions. This space although short-term meanwhile, proved the power of being connected into local communities if we really want to diversify our high streets and shopping centres.

Why is Creative Estuary uniquely placed to be leading this work?

We know the Estuary and the CCIs sector in depth. We have established partnerships with local government, and together we are making a difference locally. We know the CCIs sector need affordable and sustainable space in town centres, on high streets, and near to transport hubs. With our partners we are making that happen.

Work Wild Ltd and Paul Augarde & Partners completed research for us last year to uncover the barriers, challenges and opportunities for local authorities in bringing underused buildings in the creative use. They identified the blockages and mapped the opportunities.

These Knowledge Exchange Partnership events have presented research and practical experiences that start to provide answers for local government partners.

How will KEP activities help people/organisations outside of the Levelling Up for Culture areas?

Our local authority partners are working to bring underused buildings into creative use in their towns, on high streets and river fronts. They are sharing these journeys with each other and we will disseminate the learning through our networks, with other partners in the Estuary, and through research initiatives led by the University of Kent, and our membership of the international network, the Global Cultural Districts Forum.

What else do you have planned for the KEP over the next 2.5 years?

We will continue to work closely with our partners who are ambitious to work together as an Estuary-wide partnership. We want to work together to solve common problems and find solutions that will attract investment. This work starts in January 2024 – we’re not hanging about!